The Columbus Blue Jackets are squarely in the middle of the playoff race in the Metropolitan Division, shaking up the wild card in the Eastern Conference.
It’s safe to say the Columbus Blue Jackets are overachieving this season. Past the halfway point with 51 games played, the Blue Jackets are in the mix for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and are within striking distance of a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division.
That is a far cry from where many NHL analysts — ourselves included! — spotted Columbus before the season began. The Blue Jackets were set to be on a crash course with the basement of the Metropolitan, given the losses of major players in forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, alongside goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, in the offseason.
Columbus went all-in on a playoff run last year, and while they were successful in sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, the team ultimately fell out of contention not long after their moment in the spotlight. Though it seemed general manager Jarmo Kekalainen‘s ultimate plan of putting all their chips in on the 2018-19 season failed, Columbus has stuck around — emphatically, in fact — this year.
Through 51 games played this season, the Blue Jackets have a 27-16-8 record with 62 points and are holding down the first wild card spot in the East. Columbus is one point off the New York Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division and are five points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place.
The Blue Jackets may be in the bottom half of the NHL in terms of goals scored on the season, they are second overall in the league in goals allowed (130) through 51 games, an average of 2.55 per game. The duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins — the best hockey name in the NHL by far — have far outperformed Bobrovsky in his new home in Florida, an outcome not many saw coming. According to Hockey Reference, the Blue Jackets are third in the NHL in combined save percentage at .917 as we near the upcoming February trade deadline.
Offensively, the Blue Jackets don’t have the firepower to keep up with their opponents in the Metropolitan Division. The 21-year-old third overall pick from the 2016 NHL draft, Pierre-Luc Dubois, is the Blue Jackets’ leading point producer with 38 points and 15 goals. Oliver Bjorkstrand is Columbus’ leading scorer with 16 goals, with defenseman Zach Werenski hot on his heels with 15 goals.
The advanced stats also aren’t kind to the Blue Jackets’ offense, as the team sits 11th worst in the NHL in expected goals for per 60 minutes (2.2), according to Natural Stat Trick.
And yet, the Blue Jackets are succeeding in spite of their below-average offensive statistics. The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s eighth-best team in terms of shot suppression, allowing just 30.3 shots per game. Head coach John Torotorella is no doubt the front runner for the Jack Adams award now, thanks to the team’s overall defense and the play of Korpisalo and Merzlikins behind them.
The road for Columbus, however, only gets harder from here. According to the NHL, the Blue Jackets have the 24th easiest strength of schedule for the rest of the season. Columbus will play 14 home games and 17 on the road, with their opponent’s points percentage at .566 for their remaining 31 games.
The Blue Jackets will play 10 of their last 31 games against the Metropolitan Division, with six of those contests happening within the final weeks of the season. Thankfully for Columbus, both the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes — the two teams chasing the Blue Jackets for the wild card spots — have worse strengths of schedules for their remaining games this season.
Even if the Blue Jackets fall out of the wild card in the months to come, their mere presence in the race to begin with has made the Metropolitan Division that much more deadly than it already was this season. Six Metropolitan teams are in contention for playoff spots as of late-January, a number that has left teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs out of the postseason picture entirely.
Worse teams than the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs and succeeded in the past. Columbus, for now anyway, is benefiting from stellar goaltending and a solid defense, and that mix alone can play the spoiler role for teams looking to make a postseason push in the weeks to come.
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